Banned Books Week – The Russians

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By Karen Langley

“The important task of literature is to free man, not to censor him.” (Anais Nin)

banned books week

The banning of books is an emotive topic; so much of the process seems to be arbitrary, subjective and liable to change as times change. However, it’s such a phenomenon that there is actually now a week devoted to the subject, and I wanted to consider one country where the tendency is particularly prevalent – Russia. Every country, regime, government will at some time have placed restrictions on the written word; whether for ideological or moral reasons, the effect is the same in that the reader is denied access to the texts. But I find that Russia’s case is a particularly interesting one, perhaps different from other regimes, and the controls applied to books in that nation have a long history.

Russian censorship has existed probably for as long as Russian literature has, and it only needs a quick look back at the Father of Russian Literature, Alexander Pushkin, to see how long. Russia’s great poet lived under the rule of Tsars, a totalitarian regime with a tightly structured society and a restricted political space. Serfdom, whereby vast swathes of peasantry were basically slaves, had existed for centuries and was still decades away from being abolished. And writing and publishing was heavily controlled, with the Tsar himself being involved in deciding what could be published and what could not. In the case of Pushkin, Tsar Nicholas I thought very highly of the poet’s work and having observed the problems the former got himself into when trying to be published, volunteered to be Pushkin’s personal censor!


Russia in the 19th century was going through one of its regular period of disruption and Pushkin’s writings were linked with the Decembrist plot to overthrow the Tsar. The poet was exiled and then censored for much of his life, and in fact undertook a process which many Russian writers have to adopt – that of self-censorship to ensure publication. That tendency continued up until at least the time of Solzhenitsyn (more of which later) but is probably not specific to Russia as I imagine under any very proscriptive regime the author has to weigh up the use of every word…

Under the rule of the Tsars the restrictions continued; Gogol was forced to publish the first part of “Dead Souls” under the title of “The Adventures of Chichikov” by the censor; Dostoevsky was exiled for reading and circulating banned works; even the great Tolstoy was censored by both Russian church and state. Most often the reasons were political, and some commentators argue that the authors, being aware of the restrictions placed on them, wrote in such a way that the public would be aware of the need to read between the lines – certainly, that’s a tendency I’ve often applied to literature produced in Soviet times, with a constant awareness of the subtext of a work.

The early part of the 20th century saw a number of literary movements (particularly in poetry) sweeping Russia, including acmeism and futurism, and needless to say these were still subject to the censor’s cuts and changes. The revolution of 1917 should, of course, have swept all this away, and indeed for a brief period in the 1920s there was a massive flowering of the Russian avant garde which produced some wonderful works of art in all forms. However, the shaky new regime needed to exert an equivalent level of control to that of the Tsars to ensure its survival; and with the introduction of Soviet Realism (which insisted that artists only portray the image the regime wished to present of how a Soviet world should be) the window for truly free production of art was closed.

As the Soviet era continued, authors began to “write for the drawer” – producing works that they, as creatives, needed to produce but which they realistically knew were at odds with the political regime and which could never be published in their lifetime. Again, this was another form of self-censorship, at which the Russians seem very adept; and of course it extended into other art forms as well. Controversy still rages to this day about whether Shostakovich was a Communist lackey or a sly player of the game who hid coded references in his compositions…

Typewritten Samizdat. By Nkrita – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

It can’t be easy to suppress your own writing, and in fact the Eastern Bloc countries did find a way to get round this. Samizdat was a way of circulating dissident literature in handwritten or typewritten manuscripts which were then handed from reader to reader. The word means literally ‘self publishing’ and it was a risky business, as if you were caught with a forbidden piece of writing there could be harsh punishments. As Russian activist Vladimir Bukovsky put it: “Samizdat: I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend jail time for it myself.” And a number of major works were first published in this form, including Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich”.

So far, I’ve focused on the censoring of Russian works within their own country, but of course books from around the world were often restricted too, and I thought I would pick out some specific examples of both types.

The Rights of Man – Thomas Paine

“The Rights of Man” (1791) was a seminal work written in defence of the French Revolution and in response to Edmund Burke’s attack on that rebellion. Paine argued that it was permissible to have a revolution when a government doesn’t look after its people, their rights and their national interests – so basically, when the government lets you down you can go out and overthrow it. Such a radical viewpoint earned him a banning in the UK and a charge of treason, and the book was later banned in Tsarist Russia following the Decembrist plot mentioned above.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe

Another seminal work, from 1852, which had a strong anti-slavery message, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had a huge impact on the abolitionist movement and helped to inspire change; it was also a best-seller, though unfortunately did contribute some unfortunate stereotypes. Naturally the book was banned in the southern states during the US Civil War; it was also banned in Russia under the reign of Nicholas I. No doubt the idea of equality for slaves did not sit comfortably with a regime based on serfdom, and apparently it was also felt that it “undermined religious ideals.”

However, home-grown Russians were always subject to the censor and the Soviet era saw any number of works and authors banned; a few significant ones are:

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

Completed in 1921 and published in New York in 1924, this dystopian novel is a satire on state control; telling of a place called ‘One State’ where the residents live a rigidly controlled life and are known only as numbers, the book follows the adventures of D-503 who steps outside of that control to find forbidden love and rebellion. Obviously it was banned in Russia in 1921 because of the political commentary it contained, but it made its way to the outside world and is credited as being an influence on “Brave New World”, “Nineteen Eighty Four” and many other works.

Mikhail Bulgakov

Bulgakov suffered from regular censorship which dramatically affected his ability to live and work. His plays were usually banned, and if they even managed to get staged it was usually for a very short run before they disappeared. The only play which made a regular appearance was “Days of the Turbins”, reputedly Stalin’s favourite; but despite shorter works sneaking into print in the slightly less restrictive 1920s, Bulgakov’s magnum opus, “The Master and Margarita” was written for the drawer, burned at least once, and only made it into print in 1967. Frankly, we’re lucky it survived…

Dr Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

Unfortunately, because of the film tie-in many people think of Zhivago as a love story; however the book is an epic story of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, as seen by the titular doctor. There is an ambivalence in his view of Russia and of course an underlying criticism of the Bolsheviks, so it was never going to be publishable under Soviet rule; it was first released in Italy in 1957, having been smuggled out of the Soviet Union in samizdat form, and led to trouble for Pasternak when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature – he of course was unable to accept it. However, the book and Pasternak’s reputation have outlived the regime which attempted to crush him.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn, best known in the west for “One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich”, did not start out as a writer; but it was his experiences in the gulags which spurred him on to tell his story and become possibly one of the most censored Russian writers of the 20th century. Under Soviet rule, only “One Day…” was published, in 1962; after that, every work was published in the West. And he applied self-censorship in those works – a good example is “The First Circle”, published in 1968 while Solzhenitsyn was still living in Russia; it was radically toned down, and the revised, restored and expanded version the author issued in 2009 as “In The First Circle” is longer and much more powerful (and a strong retort to anyone who criticises Solzhenitsyn’s style). I can remember the furore surrounding the author in the mid-1970s when he was a regular presence on BBC news and current affairs programmes; in 1974 he was deported and stripped of Soviet citizenship, not returning to his mother country until 1994. A whole book could be written on the censorship of this great author, but again his works have survived along with his reputation. 

And the restrictions continue into the present day. The fall of the Soviet regime might have ushered in a new age for Russian literature and art, but under the modern reign things are just as restrictive; you only have to look at the treatment of Pussy Riot. Yet despite the constant censorship, Russian authors have continued to produce some blindingly wonderful pieces of work; and I suppose the efforts of the authorities to control it reflects the fact that Russians acknowledge the power of literature and the effects it can have on humanity. The burning of books, the restriction of free speech and thought, are things which set out to control people and limit our access to information. In this day and age, in Russia and all over the world, we need that those freedoms more than ever.

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings.